Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I recently filled out a questionnaire for Mother Earth News for their “Blogger Profile” (in the current issue!) and one of the questions asked me how many hours of sleep I get each night. I answered 10 hours in the winter and 6 in the summer. Michelle edited my answer and she changed it to 8 in the winter and 7 in the summer, because she likes to tone down my hyperbole. But the gist was that I get more sleep in the winter. It gets dark earlier and with the windows closed our bedroom is cooler, dark, and quiet.
As soon as it’s warm enough (hopefully soon!) we’ll be able
to sleep with the windows open. We don’t get a lot of traffic on our road,
especially at night, but I think there’s an animal part of our DNA that wires
us to not sleep as well when we are able to hear outside noises because our
subconscious is scanning for danger signals. You know … leopard growls, wolf
howls and that kind of thing. Around here we hear foxes in heat screeching and
coyotes yelping, so I don’t sleep as soundly in the warm weather. This is
counter-intuitive because I get far more physical exertion during the warmer
months because of the hours that I spend in the garden. I finally invested in
multiple shovels that I am able to leave in various places around my property because
inevitably I would realize that the shovel I needed was a 3-minute walk away.
If I only have one shovel, and it’s in the blueberry patch, and I need it in
the barn foundation garden that’s 6 minutes wasted. If I need to gather my
tools from various places pretty soon we’re talking some serious time wasted,
and a lot of calories burned.
Bill and Lorraine Kemp were here on the weekend for brunch and we were talking about when we get inspiration. Bill said when he has a serious technical challenge he often sleeps on it and wakes up with a solution. I was thinking about this and realized I’ve experienced that exact same situation.
Seven or eight years ago we had a massive lightning strike near the house. I had been outside playing with my rain barrels during the downpour, as I am prone to do. Suddenly there was a massive kaboom! It was a louder noise than I had ever heard. It was insane, like what I would imagine an aerial bombardment in a trench in World War One would have sounded like. I ran into the house very quickly and Morgan the Wonder Dog yelped and took off into the woods and didn’t come back for 4 hours.
Over the next couple of days I kept finding big chunks of bark all over the yard and I couldn’t figure where they had come from. Finally I found the source of them. This photo shows how the voltage traveled down two 60-foot high pine trees. When it hit the ground it traveled 50 feet through the grass to a set of metal stairs I had near one of my raised rain barrels platforms. It had parted the grass in between the trees and the stairs like you’d part a thick head of hair. The trees turned brown almost overnight and were dead within 3 months.
Our satellite dish for high speed internet is attached to the side of the guesthouse and I have Ethernet cable that runs between the two buildings buried a couple of feet down in conduit. Right after the lightning hit, the Ethernet ports in two of our computers stopped working. Even after getting them fixed, we still had no internet. At that time we were using a two-way radiophone system in our off-grid home and it hadn’t been working very well. We were relying on the internet and email for more and more of our communication with both customers and family and friends, so being without the internet all of a sudden was a time of real stress. Suddenly living off the grid lost a little of its luster.
I finally took the satellite modem and my laptop down to our dealer who was a 30-minute drive away. I can’t remember exactly what we did there, but somehow after configuring my system to work on his satellite we got it working again. Great! So I took it home but it was working really poorly back at my place. The bandwidth was a mess and it was constantly losing connection to the satellite. And so began what has become a common theme in my life off the grid - spending all day, every day obsessed with a technical problem that is often well beyond the scope of my limited intellectual capacity.
I started with level one of tech support at Xplornet, the Canadian satellite provider. After a couple of days of working with them I finally demanded to be bumped up to the next level of service. Apparently rebooting my system, cold rebooting and all the basic stuff wasn’t working. So they put me on to Hughes Satellite, which is the U.S. supplier that owns the satellite. I spent several days with their level two tech support people with no results. It didn’t matter what we tried – my internet was still slow and constantly losing connection with the satellite.
Finally, they let me talk to a “Level Three Tech.” Woo hoo! I pictured someone wearing a black hooded cape, smoking thin cigarettes and living on a mountaintop in Bhutan. Even with all of his infinite wisdom he wasn’t able to help me either. I had a horrible sinking feeling. I live in the middle of nowhere with next to useless internet speed if I use my phone and now my satellite internet service was pooched. And the high priest wasn’t able to help me. I was really up the creek!
I spent about 5 sleepless nights tossing and turning and over-reacting (as I am prone to do.) And then suddenly a light bulb went off (and yes, it was an energy efficient CFL light bulb at that). So at about 3 o’clock in the morning I got up, went out to the office, fired up the satellite dish and got into the satellite software. I had finally remembered that when I had taken my system to the dealer we had had to change one number (longitude or latitude, I can’t remember) to get my modem to work at his location. I dug out my original installation specs, plugged in my exact location numbers and the system worked perfectly.
First off I felt like a rocket scientist! That morning I called NASA to apply for a job. Surprisingly this amazing feat of intellectual ability didn’t qualify me to work on the space station. But mostly I learned just how precarious a position all of this technology puts us in. Even a level three tech didn’t think to suggest that we should go through the installation process again to make sure the numbers were right. In hindsight slow bandwidth and intermittent dropping would tell me that the satellite signal is close but having trouble locking on and might just need a slight adjustment.
I am not alone in my reliance on technology. One tsunami wave knocked out diesel generators at a nuclear plant in the north of Japan has thrown their whole grid in turmoil. There are rolling blackouts. Some of the most high profile corporations on the planet are being forced to suspend production. Store shelves in Toyko are running out of some supplies. Too much reliance on technology is a dangerous thing.
I just did a podcast with Darcy Menard at the Stumbling Homestead blog http://stumblinghomestead.com/blog/ and he asked what I thought about a person building their own drain-back system for solar domestic hot water rather than purchasing an expensive engineered one like I have from EnerWorks. I told Darcy that I thought it was a brilliant idea. It may not be quite as efficient as the commercially produced one and will require more time to build it but the beauty of it is the simplicity. You can build it with standard parts and materials that you can buy anywhere. And if you build it, when it breaks, you’ll know how to fix it. I love this concept.
Now when I have mental challenges I use them as an excuse to get more sleep. Lately I’ve been struggling with the challenges of getting our books into e-book formats. No problemo … I think I’ll try sleeping on it!
Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather.